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The Meanings of Boundaries: Contested Landscapes of Resource Use in Malawi

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Walker, Peter A.; Peters, Pauline E.
Conference: Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Conf. Date: June 10-14
Date: 1998
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/1561
Sector: General & Multiple Resources
Land Tenure & Use
Region: Africa
Subject(s): IASC
land tenure and use
property rights
resource management
village organization
Abstract: "This paper examines the changing meanings of boundaries that demarcate community, private, and public land in Malawi and their roles in shaping resource use. Boundaries have long been a central concept in many social science disciplines, and recently considerable attention has been given to the ways that boundaries---whether physical or socio-cultural---are socially constructed and contested. In some cases landscapes are said to reflect multiple overlapping or multi-layered boundaries asserted by competing social groups. In other cases boundaries are said to be blurred, or even erased, through social contests and competing discourses. The authors of this paper, one a geographer, one an anthropologist, suggest that such choices in analytical language and metaphors tend to obscure certain key social dynamics in which boundaries play a central role. "Specifically, the paper argues that in the two case studies presented from southern and central Malawi, social contests focus not on competing ('overlapping', or 'multi-layers') sets of spatially-defined boundaries but over the meanings of de jure boundaries that demarcate community, private, and state land. In asserting rights to use resources on private and state land, villagers do not seek to shift or eliminate the boundaries marking community and private or state land or to assert alternative sets of spatial boundaries. Instead, the key contests over boundaries in these case studies involve efforts to re-define the meanings of existing boundaries---that is, how boundaries define rights and obligations among communities, private landowners, and the state. Similarly, language and metaphors centered on the notion of 'blurring' of boundaries may be misleading---boundaries in these case studies are not blurred butremain relatively stable and widely observed. Instead, boundaries serve as a focal point for discursive strategies to rework the social relations defined by these boundaries. "The paper suggests an analytical approach that focuses not on multi-layered spatial boundaries nor the blurring of boundaries but on how boundaries help shape discursive strategies in which local villagers propose and act on claims to particular places and resources on private and state land rather than proposing alternative boundaries as lines-on-the-map. Thus, boundaries play a key role in creating a contested landscape characterized not by linear divisions of space but by multiple discursive struggles over access and control of particular places and resources."

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